Friday, 24 November 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri



A smart and wise man once asked me (that would be my son-in-law, Laurens, yesterday morning): “Vic, how can you give three stars to a film when your review is so negative?” Walter understands this sentiment very well, as he has asked me the same question more than once. After watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yesterday afternoon, I do think something about my rating system needs to change. Why? Because the number of stars deserved by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri exceeds the number of stars I gave Justice League by much more than one, but one is all I have left to give.

Before I say more, a word to the writers of Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok: If you want to know what original, imaginative stories look like, watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

Wow!

What a thrill to watch a film that surprised me time and again, that wasn’t like anything I remember watching before. This is what good writing is all about; it’s no surprise that it was written (and directed) by Martin McDonagh, who gave us the original In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Thank goodness the trailers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (of which I had seen at least parts) gave me no idea what was coming. The film is being called a dark comedy drama, which I suppose is accurate, though a strong emphasis needs to be placed on the drama (as opposed to the comedy), with the word ‘dark’ clearly referring to both the drama and the comedy. I would probably describe it as a quirky dark drama, with humour, similar but decidedly different from the work of the Coen brothers.

The story concerns Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered nine months before. During that nine months, Mildred has seen no evidence that the police in Ebbing have done much to find Angela’s killer, so she buys advertising on three billboards near her home (on a seldom-used highway) to ask ‘why not’, aimed specifically at the popular Ebbing chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer, so the billboards create a big stir and bring a lot of hatred down on Mildred and the billboard owner, Red Whelby (Caleb Landry Jones). Even Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is furious with his mother’s behaviour. Not to mention Charlie (John Hawkes), her ex-husband. But the most angry person in Ebbing is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby’s second-in-command, who worships the ground Willoughby walks on and wants to see the foul-mouthed Mildred put behind bars. Very few people in Ebbing wouldn’t agree. One of them is James (Peter Dinklage), a lonely car dealer with a crush on her. I won’t say anymore about the plot, because this is a film I recommend to all who can handle the violence and the darkness.

Other actors of note are Clarke Peters, who plays Abercrombie, a police officer forced to step into the situation in Ebbing, and Abbie Cornish, who plays Anne (Willoughby’s wife). The acting is stellar by all concerned, but Rockwell is nothing short of phenomenal, with some sensational assistance by McDormand and Harrelson. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also features gorgeous cinematography and a nice score.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does have some rough edges, and a couple of scenes bothered me a lot (i.e. I would have written them differently), but, on the whole, I was blown away by the intelligence and humanization of the film. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may be a very dark film, but there is a fair bit of light in all the right places (and I will say no more). ****. My mug is up, along with a guaranteed place in my top ten films of 2017. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Justice League



I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been a DC fan since the age of seven (a long time ago), with my favourite superheroes being Batman and The Flash, so, despite the mediocre reviews from critics, I needed to go watch Justice League. After all, I liked Batman vs. Superman a lot more than the critics did, despite Ben Affleck’s presence as Batman. 

I watched Justice League in 2D IMAX, the only way to watch this film. And I must note, right off, that, unlike Ragnarok, the cinematography suffers very little by being made-for-3D. Indeed, Justice League looked gorgeous on the IMAX screen and this alone was worth the price of admission. I especially enjoyed the continued dark atmosphere of the Zack Snyder DC films, helped by Danny Elfman’s score, which, while nothing special, did what was needed. 

Justice League tells the story of how Bruce Wayne (Batman), with the help of Alfred (Jeremy Irons), brings together a group of superheroes to fight the big bad Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), who wants nothing less than to make planet earth his own. To do this, Steppenwolf needs three boxes full of primal energy that have been kept hidden and protected by the three groups who had fought and defeated  Steppenwolf once before (the Amazons, the Atlantans, and regular humans). For some reason, Steppenwolf has little trouble finding and acquiring the boxes. Indeed, before Bruce Wayne manages to bring the Justice League together, Steppenwolf has already brought the three boxes together to create the mighty power that will destroy the planet. Can the Justice League possibly arrive in time to save humanity? And what about Superman? Can they do it without him? Isn’t he dead? What would happen if a way was found to bring him back to life - would that be a good idea?

The questions above should be read in a tone that lets you know how little I respect the plot of Justice League. It is every bit as inane as the plot of Ragnarok, and that is saying something. Big baddie wants to destroy the world. Superheroes fight together (after many arguments and much sarcastic repartee) to destroy big baddie. The end! What a crock! How is it that the writers of superhero films (and no less than Joss Whedan was involved in writing Justice League) have such a limited imagination when it comes to telling an original or at least entertaining story. They just tell the same old story over and over and over again, ad nauseam, hoping that all the mindless action and a few lines of entertaining dialogue will be enough to bring in the masses. Surely, one of these days, the masses will get bored (but not yet, since Justice League had one of the 25 highest-grossing opening weekends of all time, though it's viewed a failure because it didn't perform as well at the U.S. box office as it was supposed to).

As in Ragnarok, the characters in Justice League are occasionally fun to watch, especially The Flash, played well by Ezra Miller. Other Justice League members include Batman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and, if he weren’t so very dead, Superman (Henry Cavill). The Justice League 'origin story', while by no means original, was at least at lot more entertaining than the Steppenwolf story. Amy Adams does well as Lois Lane, but how could she have so much airtime if Superman is dead? Sigh. Other than Miller, the acting certainly wasn’t outstanding, but it was passable (I’m even getting used to Affleck as Batman).

The  bottom line is that I enjoyed Justice League about as much as I enjoyed Ragnarok (though for different reasons), which means I did think it was worth a look. *** My mug is up, but one of these days the lack of an original flavour inside will make me turn these mugs down. 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer



The Lobster, written and directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, was one of my favourite films of 2016, so, with some serious buzz at Cannes this year, I thought I’d better go see the new Lanthimos film: The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Not the wisest filmgoing decision I’ve made recently. I actually regretted having seen it, something which thankfully only happens a couple of times a year.

Reviewers who loved the film wrote things like: “Be warned: This is tough stuff,” “a brooding requiem of domestic horror,” “When absurdism feels this wrong, you know it’s being done right,” (the logic of that comment escapes me) “The experience is exquisite agony, both revelatory and painful,” “it traps us within its terrifying and bizarre situation,” “one of the most disturbing films of the year.” With the last comment, I have no argument, but I do have a problem with viewing absurd, agonizingly painful terror as exquisite, let alone as art. One could say that mother! is a similar experience, but that was pure allegory and therefore forgivable. The Killing of a Sacred Deer must be something as well. It’s based on an ancient Greek play by Euripides (Iphigenia at Aulis), but that doesn’t excuse it. Calling it absurdist humour is certainly accurate, but sometimes absurdist humour crosses a line that shouldn’t be crossed. For me, this is one of those times.

Of course, it’s not just absurdist humour or a psychological thriller (as I thought it was) but a true horror film in every way. This is a genre for which I generally have little respect - sorry, Jeremy. I’m not going to tell you what The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about; not because of possible spoilers (since I don’t expect many readers to watch the film), but because even to read an overview of the film’s plot can give you nightmares. 

I was cringing from the opening shot: a surgery being performed by Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), our protagonist. We soon learn that the teenage Martin (Barry Keoghan), is stalking Steven for some reason, something that Steven knows and seems to accept at some level. But then Martin insists on coming over for dinner to meet the family: Steven’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), his teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and his son, Bob (Sunny Suljic). And things get pretty crazy after that (I will say no more).

All of the acting is, I believe, excellent, though in an absurd film like this, it’s sometimes hard to judge. The cinematography and score also work well for the kind of film it is, but, as I have intimated above, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not my kind of film, regardless of what it’s trying to say (one reviewer describes it as a profound meditation on karma, predestination and guilt; maybe it is, but it still doesn’t work for me). **+ for the absurdist humour and the performances. My mug is down. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok



REWRITTEN and UPDATED (at the end)!

In my ongoing efforts to understand why so many people (including certain youngest daughters who shall remain nameless) enjoy the Marvel films so much, I decided I’d better give Ragnarok a peak. This resulted in four very different responses at various points in the film:
  1. My first response, after about ten minutes, was to walk out and not subject myself to any more torture. Not the torture on screen, which was relatively minimal, but the torture of watching Thor be so silly while chained up in front of the super-powerful giant baddie with horns and glowing eyes (Surtur?). Wasn't working for me at all.
  2. Just in the nick of time (i.e. just as I was about to get up and leave), I did a double-take: Was that Matt Damon, ever so well disguised? It WAS! And Sam Neill is there too. Well, that was fun. Maybe I should stick around and see who else turns up. It didn’t take long after that to see that the big baddie of Ragnarok (Hela, Thor’s older sister and the Goddess of Death) was played by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett does baddie very well, so she was fun to watch. And of course there are other interesting actors in Ragnarok, like Tom Hiddleston as Loki (Thor’s brother and former baddie), Benedict Cumberbatch in a cameo as Dr. Strange, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk), Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, and the ever-quirky Jeff Goldblum as yet another baddie. The primary 'goodies' here are Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tessa Thompson as a Valkyrie. Hemsworth is okay, but Thompson is the show-stealer, along with Korg (voiced by the director, Taika Waititi), who never fails to amuse. In other words, by far the best thing about Thor: Ragnarok is the acting, which is mostly fun to watch throughout.
  3. Insofar as the above actors were given funny, often droll, lines, I frequently enjoyed the writing in the film, so much so that by mid-way through (or maybe even two-thirds), I was glad I had decided to watch Ragnarok after all.
  4. Then came the realization, which grew stronger with every one of the film’s last forty minutes, that Ragnarok had no plot worthy of the word and that it was, after all, nothing more than an excuse for more endless PG violence (evil sister comes back to take over Asgard only to be defeated by Thor and company; That’s it? Seriously???). In other words, by far the worst thing about Thor: Ragnarok is that there is no story to even begin to excuse the endless violence (see revised opinion below).
By the end of the film, I was just shaking my head. It didn’t help that the otherwise gorgeous cinematography was mostly ruined by being made for 3D (I watched the 2D). The score had its moments. Bottom line: Watching the fun the actors were having allowed Thor: Ragnarok to just cross the line into watchability: ***. My mug is up. [At this point, my original review stated that the stuff inside the mug was very weak and unimaginative, but I am taking that back, thanks to Andrew Buhr in Edmonton, who sent me the following link: http://endlessyarning.com/2017/11/12/thor-ragnarok-indigenous-film/ . While I had picked up on how the humour in Ragnarok often had a justice theme, I had missed many of the ways this film could be viewed through an Indigenous lens (read the Indigenous review). I stand corrected and humbled, though my complaints about the overall plot and the endless violence remain in effect. Given that the story does, however, possess deeper layers worthy of discussion, I am upgrading my rating to a solid ***. My mug is up without qualification.]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Victoria and Abdul



I couldn’t stop shaking my head after watching Stephen Frears' Victoria and Abdul - not because of what I had just seen but because of why so many critics condemned the film. I have frequently criticized film critics for not paying enough attention to the moral compass of a film; for acclaiming certain well-made films which I felt should have been denounced for some of their content (especially the myth of redemptive violence). The film It is a recent example. So imagine my surprise when the critics finally condemn a film for its lack of a moral compass, only to see them do so on rather flimsy grounds.

Victoria and Abdul tells the story of Queen Victoria’s relationship with an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim near the end of her life (1900-1901). Karim (Ali Fazal) is sent to London to present a commemorative coin to the queen (Judi Dench). Victoria is impressed by Karim’s manner and handsome features and, to the consternation of her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and her entire household (led by Sir Henry, played by Tim Pigott-Smith), Karim becomes Victoria’s spiritual advisor and close friend, eventually bringing his wife and mother-in-law to live with him at the palace. 

Victoria and Abdul begins with what I read as a disclaimer, that it is “based on true events … mostly.” When I read those words, I assumed the film was actually taking quite a few liberties with reality and should not be viewed as anything like a reliable historical account. But the strongest criticisms of the film all refer to the way it whitewashes the queen and British colonialism. 

I know the history of Victoria’s empire and British colonial oppression in India well enough to say that if the film was trying to provide any kind of accurate historical commentary, it should indeed be condemned, because it paints Victoria with a very sympathetic brush, making her seem like a queen trying to promote anti-racism and religious tolerance in defiance of all those around her, and it paints Karim as a naive star-struck innocent who adores the queen and quickly devotes his life to her. Of course that doesn’t reflect the reality of life in India at the time or tell us what Victoria was really like (and there is a character in the film, namely Mohammed, played by Adeel Akhtar, who continuously condemns the colonialist attitudes around him and is angry with his friend Abdul). Whatever the true story of Victoria and Abdul might have been, this film is but a light-hearted take on it (almost a farce) and does not deserve to be condemned as skewing history. 

This doesn’t mean that viewers shouldn’t be made aware of the true history and realize how inaccurate the portrayals are, and that the lingering effects of British colonialism around the world continue to be responsible for much suffering. But watching Victoria and Abdul on its own terms allows us to smile at what might have been, while admiring the way the film itself is clearly condemning racist, classist and intolerant attitudes. And how many films these days give us a sympathetic Muslim protagonist (who, regardless of his flaws and apparent naiveté, is nevertheless portrayed as a kind intelligent man)?

As for Victoria and Abdul as a film: The acting is solid throughout (Dench, as usual, is magnificent), the cinematography is outstanding, with each scene carefully framed, the score is more than good enough and the writing is (given the above) often excellent. My strongest criticism is that we don’t get enough character development for Karim, either by way of a backstory or by way of his family life. The film also tells its story in too formulaic a way. Either more of an effort to make it a farce or more dramatic tension might have been helpful.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, Victoria and Abdul deserves at least a solid *** (if not ***+ for Dench’s performance alone). My mug is up.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Lucky (2017 EIFF 13)



The closing film of the 2017 EIFF was one of the most inspiring films of the festival and, given the recent passing of Harry Dean Stanton, a fitting way to end the festival. 

Lucky, directed by John Carroll Lynch, stars the 90-year-old Stanton as Lucky, a WWII veteran living by himself in a small house on the outskirts of a small town in the Arizona desert. When Lucky collapses suddenly in his home, it takes a toll on his carefully structured life and makes him realize that he will not be living forever. 

We follow Lucky as he goes to the local coffee shop and talks to Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), the owner, and Loretta (Yvonne Huff), a waitress who will visit Lucky at home later in the film (in one of the film’s many precious moments). Lucky goes on to visit his other regular haunts, including  the local bar, owned by Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), who like to argue with Lucky (who is an atheist obsessed with truth and realism). At the bar, Lucky meets Howard (David Lynch), whose turtle has run off. Then there’s Ed Begley, Jr. as Lucky's doctor, Ron  Livingston as an insurance agent (Lucky detests such people) and Tom Skerritt as a fellow WWII veteran, a stranger who is just passing through.

Lucky is a slow-paced film that follows Lucky’s daily routine and his relationships/discussions with the townsfolk. There is otherwise no plot to speak of. But the discussions are often riveting (especially the one with Skerritt) or moving (e.g. the one with Livingston) or profound. And when Lucky suddenly breaks out in a Spanish song at a birthday party, you know this is something special (Stanton was a musician). 

One of the writers of Lucky attended the festival and did a Q&A after the film. He noted (no surprise) that Lucky’s personality is very similar to Stanton’s own personality. He also noted that the actors in the film were friends of Stanton who were eager to participate. This provides some excellent acting work for such a low-budget indie film, but it also gives us a few performances that were a little less than convincing. Stanton, though, makes up for all of them with a sublime performance that is the perfect end to his acting career.

The writing was very good but a little uneven, providing moments of brilliance but also moments that falter, with some missed opportunities to go deeper. Among Lucky’s more memorable quotes: “I know the truth and the truth matters”; “the only thing worse than an awkward silence: small talk”; and “there’s a difference between lonely and being alone.” The cinematography and score are excellent. Lucky is a humble humanizing film about death and loneliness that falls just a little short of being a classic. It gets a solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Suburbicon




George Clooney’s new film, a dark-comedy noir starring Matt Damon and based on an old screenplay by the Coen brothers, seems like it should have been a guaranteed success. Instead, Suburbicon flopped at the box office and was panned by the critics. What happened, and is the film really as bad as the critics say?

The opening scene would suggest otherwise. By way of a TV ad that perfectly captures the time (1950’s) and place (small-town USA) in an obvious parody, the scene introduces us to the ideal all-white community of Suburbicon. Suburbicon’s 60,000 inhabitants live in nearly-identical homes and almost always have a smile on their face because they are so happy to be living there. At least until the fateful day an African-American family (the Mayers) moves into town, sending everyone reeling and soon resulting in increasingly-violent attempts to persuade the Mayers to leave. 

The music, the production design and the cinematography create a period feel in this opening scene that is just right. With regular background commentary from radio and TV throughout the film, the period feel is maintained and enhanced even when Suburbicon becomes a film noir instead of a light satire. But the story in the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the potential of that opening scene. 

Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a company vice president and one of Suburbicon’s supposedly happy citizens. Gardner is married to Rose (Julianne Moore), who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident years before, and who is helped out by her twin sister, Margaret (Moore). Gardner and Rose have a ten-year-old son named Nicky (Noah Jupe), who is actually Suburbicon’s protagonist. Other key characters are Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and an insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a delicious cameo by Oscar Isaac). 

One night, the serene family life of the Lodges is disrupted when two men break into their home and do things that result in Rose’s death. (Minor spoiler alert) Margaret quickly steps in to assume Rose’s place in the household while Gardner returns to work in a state of some agitation, agitation that seems to have more to do with money than with the loss of his wife. When Gardner and Margaret fail to identify Rose’s killers in a police line-up, Nicky is at first confused, then alarmed. Too late, he realizes that the horror of his mother’s death is only the first of many horrors that are about to befall him and the Lodge family.

Meanwhile, the Mayers, who happen to live next door to the Lodges, are finding themselves under siege by the angry townsfolk, who have placed a confederate flag on their living room window.

That the dark (and darkly humorous) story of the Lodge family seems to have little to do with the story of the Mayer family next door is one of the key criticisms of Suburbicon. It stems from the fact that the dark-comedy thriller part of the film was written by the Coen brothers decades ago while the story of the Mayer family was added by Clooney and Grant Heslov just before filming. Film critics are convinced that trying to mix these two stories was a bad idea, especially because the two stories are so unequal, with far more time devoted to the Lodge family and very little to the Mayer family, who get virtually no character development (which is why I haven’t even identified them). Critics complain that using the Mayers as a social-commentary plot element on the side is distasteful; it is also seen as ironic (because of the unequal nature of the story), given that Clooney was clearly attempting to express his views on life in the U.S. in the 21st century. 

However, I believe there are factors that mitigate the critics’ complaints. First, the story of the Mayer family is based on a real-life event in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, so its inclusion in Suburbicon is a deliberate attempt to show how little has changed in a country rife with fears that Syrian immigrants or Mexicans may move next door (not to mention Charlottesville, which happened after the film was made). Second, the reason the Mayer family is relegated to being a plot element is that Suburbicon is neither a drama nor a social satire. If it were one of these, the criticisms about its heavy-handed racial satire would be well-deserved. But Suburbicon is a dark-comedy thriller with some social satire on the side, satire that focuses not only on how members of the innocent Mayer family are treated like criminals while the real criminals next door are ignored, but also on how Gardner hated his supposedly perfect but meaningless life, leading to his criminal acts.

I am not suggesting that Suburbicon is a great film. On the contrary, I think its dark comedy misses the mark as often as it finds it, its story of the Lodge family is uneven and has little to offer, and it needs substantially more character development all around.

Nevertheless, I found watching Suburbicon an enjoyable experience. Jupe and Damon were outstanding, with Jupe (as Nicky) providing the key emotional engagement in the film, and Suburbicon’s satire, unlike its darker comedy, worked quite well and does give viewers something to think about as we consider life in North America today.

So I am confused about why so many viewers and critics found watching Suburbicon to be such an unpleasant experience, especially when I think about the popularity and critical acclaim of an unpleasant film like It. It is a film that features seven wonderful teenage actors in roles that might have made for a profound and beautiful coming-of-age story in small-town Maine. Instead, for me, that ludicrous and violent film has absolutely nothing to offer and watching Suburbicon is a much better use of time (if you can handle the violence). 

Both of these films feature life-affirming messages buried within a violent narrative, but It subverted its potential message by focusing on scares, while Suburbicon added its message to an otherwise pointless plot in order to help make the world a better place. Clooney should be lauded and encouraged for doing this, not denigrated. So Suburbicon gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Faces Places (2017 EIFF 12)



The critics are raving about this unique documentary made by photographer/muralist J.R. and filmmaker Agnès Varda. Mostly for good reason. Varda and J.R. travel around rural France, taking photos of people, listening to their stories and then plastering huge versions of the photos onto buildings. The primary theme of Faces Places is worker solidarity. When in pursuit of that theme, the film is often riveting. 

Faces Places would be a great documentary for its humanization alone, but it also offers many humorous and profound observations from Varda and J.R. as the 89-year-old director and the young photographer get to know each other in the process of making this film together. It often feels like a quirky road movie.

Faces Places is a true work of art, but for me it wasn’t perfect and I can’t give it ****. The first half of the film is truly amazing, as engaging and moving as it is profound. But for me the second half lagged a bit, both in the stories of the people Varda and J.R. meet as well as their own interactions. For me, the focus on the filmmakers wears a little thin in the second half.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful documentary that I recommend to all. Faces Places gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Sweet Virginia (2017 EIFF 11)



This low-budget, Coen-brothers-like, dark indie thriller was one of the more pleasant surprises at the EIFF, primarily because of the way it kept me engaged from the first minute to the last, not least because its focus is entirely on its very compelling cast of characters (and because it has a marvellous sense of atmosphere, which fuels the constant tension). 

At the centre of Sweet Virginia is Sam (Jon Bernthal), a motel owner in a small Alaskan town, a town that is suddenly rocked by an after-hours triple-murder in the local bar. We know who did the deed (Elwood, played by Christopher Abbott) and soon learn why, but it’s a mystery to the locals, including Sam, even though the eccentric Elwood checks into his motel shortly after the murder. 

The lack of mystery for the viewer might limit one’s enjoyment in watching a thriller, but didn’t bother me much because I enjoyed the focus on how the fascinating characters interacted with each other. The big mystery to me, which did limit my enjoyment of the film somewhat, was where the police were in all this. We hardly see them at all in Sweet Virginia, as if a triple-murder is no big deal to them, making for an unusual type of small-town crime thriller (which isn’t all bad, but the lack of credibility was distracting).

Other characters of note are the wives of two of the victims, women who didn't appreciate their husbands enough to do much grieving: Lila (Imogen Poots), who finds herself in way over her head, and Bernadette (Rosemary DeWitt), who is having an affair with Sam. All of the acting is very good, though it’s Bernthal’s performance which stands out. 

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of intelligent suspense films that focus on characters and dialogue instead of action. Sweet Virgina is such a film, and Jamie M. Dagg’s directing keeps the film moving at exactly the right pace, helped by the stunning cinematography. There could have been more character development (although there was just enough to let viewers put pieces into place themselves, which I rather enjoy) less violence (too much to expect), and more police (just for credibility’s sake), but this is my kind of thriller. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Happy End (2017 EIFF 10)



One of the treats at this year’s EIFF was getting to watch Michael Haneke’s latest film, Happy End. I love European family dramas, and Happy End is a very European (in its style) drama (with a strong dash of dark comedy) about a very dysfunctional family in Calais, France. Needless to say, if a film is written and directed by Haneke and called Happy End, one should expect anything but. Unfortunately, the cold darkness that permeates so many of Haneke’s films is the only thing preventing this film from being a masterpiece.

Isabelle Huppert, who was so mesmerizing as Elle in last year’s EIFF, stars as Anne Laurent, the wife/mother/sister/daughter of the family. Anne is the cold businesswoman at the helm of a large construction business which has just suffered a major accident, thanks in no small part to the incompetence of Anne’s son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). Anne and Pierre live with her ageing father, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in a gorgeous mansion, where they are served by Moroccan refugees (the film’s location makes the refugee crisis a constant theme in the background). Then there’s Anne’s brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose somewhat scary 12-year-old daughter, Ève (Fanzine Harduin), has come to live with him because her mother is in a coma after a drug overdose (which we are led to believe may have been intentionally caused by Ève). I’ll just mention one other character in the film: Anne’s British lawyer (and fiancé), Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones), who seems strangely out of place. Most of these characters are brimming with resentment and anger, which will lead to all kinds of ‘happiness’.

The acting of all concerned is exceptional, which allows Happy End to be endlessly engaging in a fascinating way even when its characters are often less than sympathetic. The cinematography, meanwhile, is stunning. And the social commentary, especially around the refugee crisis, is often spot-on. So Happy End is a very entertaining, very well-made film. Like I said, if it wasn’t so darn cold, I would have given it an easy ****. As it is, I’ll settle for ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

American Made



I decided to watch American Made (which is based on a true story) because I’d heard that it exposes the role of the CIA in the central American drug trade and in the various scandals involving the Contras (including Oliver North). Had that been an accurate assessment of the film’s goals or even of its contents, Doug Liman’s American Made might have been a great film, or at least a very good one. Unfortunately, neither is true (IMHO).

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who, in 1978, is offered the chance to take photos of Soviet-supported bases in Central America. When this proves successful (thanks to Seal’s fearless flying), Seal begins taking on jobs of his own, like smuggling drugs for a new drug cartel in Colombia. When Seal’s CIA handler, known as Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), finds out about this (after Seal is arrested in Colombia), his response is to give Seal 2,000 acres of land in Arkansas and an entire small airport which Seal can use as a base for his various smuggling operations (guns to the Contras, then guns to the drug lords in Colombia and money to the Contras, then the Contras themselves, so they can be trained by the American military). 

Seal becomes enormously wealthy, filling the local banks with his millions. His wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), knows somethings’ wrong but enjoys the high life while she can. Of course, when you get that wealthy doing very illegal things, even if it’s for the CIA, big trouble is bound to come your way, and it does, though not before Seal has a chance to work with Oliver North to pin the Central American drug-trafficking, which has been supported (if indirectly) by the CIA, on the communists.

American Made has an interesting style designed to place it in the early 80’s. This is only partially successful. I had mixed feelings about the cinematography and the music, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of the acting (Gleeson stood out). I also thought the story’s structure was a little too chaotic, failing to make some important connections. But my biggest disappointment was in the film’s treatment of the CIA. The blame for the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian drug trade and the various Contra scandals is pinned on one intelligent but slightly bumbling individual (Schafer), which is nonsense. There’s a great scene in which President Reagan is shown talking on TV about how the evil Sandinistas are involved in the drug trade when in fact it is his own people and the Contras who are involved, but that’s far too little too late for a film that had a chance to really say something important about the most evil organization in the history of humanity.

So American Made gets *** for an entertaining attempt. But it could have been, and should have been, much better. My mug is trying to find its way up.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Novitiate (2017 EIFF 9)



Novitiate was my biggest surprise at the EIFF. This low-budget indie film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was made by first-time director Margaret Betts (who also wrote the screenplay), has the look and feel of a big-budget Hollywood film made by a veteran director. This can, of course, be a bad thing; indeed, it may be Novitiate’s biggest flaw as well as one of its positive attributes. But once I got over my shock at how typically Hollywood the film appeared, I actually had a lot of admiration and appreciation for the non-indie feel of the film.

Margaret Qualley stars as Cathleen, a young woman in the early 1960’s who feels called to become a nun. Her abusive mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), who hates religion, is horrified, but maybe she is responsible for Cathleen’s decision. 

Once in the convent, Cathleen joins a group of fellow novitiates who try to survive the strict rules and harsh discipline faced by nuns-in-training back in the early 60’s. Leading that harsh discipline is the conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is under an immense amount of stress because of the Second Vatican Council, which is changing lifelong traditions and introducing new policies on the life of nuns. Tensions rise for Cathleen and the Reverend Mother, both of whom face unexpected pressures.

The inhuman treatment of noviciates rivals the dysfunctional setting of Cathleen’s home. Change is desperately needed but we also get to see how the patriarchal Roman Catholic church never considers the opinions of the woman whose lives it is changing. There’s a lot to discuss in Novitiate, including a scene involving the only man with a serious role in the film: Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare). This disturbing scene surprised me because it seemed so sympathetic to the patriarchy, which didn’t make sense to me in a film written and directed by a woman and having almost entirely female characters. But that’s an example of something requiring discussion. 

Qualley and Leo are outstanding in the lead roles. Leo’s brilliant nuance performance reminded me of Meryl Streep in Doubt, whose character is similar to Leo’s. The rest of the performances are also very good. The cinematography is gorgeous, the score is well done, and the writing is excellent. 

Novitiate has not yet been released and so it hasn’t been reviewed by most of the major critics. My gut tells me they won’t like it as much as I did, partly because of the old-fashioned Hollywood feel. But I’m giving Novitiate ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Call Me By Your Name (2017 EIFF 8)



One of my favourite films at the EIFF, Call Me By Your Name has all the ingredients to be a four-star classic: Fantastic location, gorgeous cinematography, brilliant writing, vital story, marvellous music, terrific performances, and great directing. Unfortunately, one of the major characters (or the actor playing him) grated on me from start to finish, making it unlikely that Call Me By Your Name will make my top ten films of the year. 

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, who made the excellent I am Love and A Bigger Splash, and written by James Ivory (based on the novel by André Aciman), Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a 17-year-old boy’s first love. The boy is Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an American-Italian Jew spending the summer of 1983 in northern Italy with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) an eminent history professor, and mother (Amira Casar), a translator. Elio spends his days reading and hanging out with Marzia (Esther Garrel), who has strong feelings for Elio, but, for Elio, something is missing in his search for love. He finds out what that something is when Oliver (Armie Hammer), a young American scholar, comes to live with the family (to study with his father).

Chalamet is phenomenal as Elio, and Stuhlbarg stands out as the understanding father. The story is beautifully-told, with a depth and intensity of feeling that time and again reaches perfection, making this a very engaging film. Even the romance between Elio and Oliver often works well, in spite of the fact that it’s the character of Oliver who just didn't feel convincing to me. It might have been Hammer’s acting style rather than the character, but I couldn’t connect with him, as much as I wanted to (because otherwise the film was so wonderful). 

I  hope I have a chance to watch Call Me By Your Name again before I make my top-ten list in January to see if a second viewing changes my perspective. For now, Call Me By Your Name gets a solid ***+. My mug is up - highly recommended.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Battle of the Sexes



Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a very unusual film. That’s often a compliment, but in this case it’s more of a mistake. 

The story is well known, at least to those of us who were old enough in 1973 to remember watching the “Battle of the Sexes”; to remember listening to Howard Cosell’s cringe-worthy commentary. Those were the days, my friend! Men were men! Women were pregnant or in the kitchen! Guys like Bobby Riggs proudly identified as a male chauvinist. However far we may still have to go in the battle for gender equality, Battle of the Sexes at least shows us how amazingly far we have come since 1973, when men could get away with saying the most absurd things about women (e.g. “women just can’t handle pressure as well as men”).

In 1973, the 55-year-old Riggs (played by Steve Carell), who was a tennis champion is his younger days and is now a gambler, challenges the world’s best women tennis players to a match to show just how inferior women’s tennis is to men’s tennis. After Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in two sets, world champion Billy Jean King (Emma Stone), who’s been fighting for gender equality, can’t resist taking up the challenge to put Riggs in his place. 

So much for the sports and spectacle side of the plot. If Battle of the Sexes was really just about this story, it would have been a dud. Thankfully, that story is secondary to the real story. The real story is about Billy Jean King’s fight for gender equality and her affair with her hairdresser (Marilyn, played by Andrea Riseborough) at a time when going public with such an affair would have been a huge scandal that might have ended King’s career (and she was only 29 in 1973). 

The drama focusing on King is excellent filmmaking. Stone, who is perhaps the greatest actor of her generation (and yes, I include men) is terrific as King, and Riseborough is excellent as well. The story flows well, the dialogue is sharp, and there’s even some appropriate comic relief by way of Ted, the fashion designer (Alan Cumming, who is wonderful), who is also gay. The first half of Battle of the Sexes is almost entirely about King and it’s a solid ***+ film at this point. 

Unfortunately, the instant the film turns to Riggs, his gambling addiction, and his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who throws Riggs out of the house, it loses its credibility as well as its class. The acting of Carell and Shue is only mediocre, their characters aren’t interesting and the story is barely average. If the film and been split between the stories of Riggs and King, it would have only been good for ***.  But fortunately that is not the case. Most of the film is about King and even the big event is secondary (as mentioned above). 

Because of this, I’m going to let the mostly-entertaining Battle of the Sexes slide across to ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Hunting Emma (Jagveld) (2017 EIFF 7)



Let’s get back to the EIFF.

My least favourite film at the EIFF was Hunting Emma, a violent South African thriller with a hint of dark comedy; in other words, it’s a dark Tarantino-esque film from filmmaker Byron Davis. 

The plot is straightforward, predictable, boring and, well, you’ll get the picture: Emma Le Roux (played by Leandie du Randt) is a beautiful young pacifist woman who has been trained in all things military by her ex-special-forces father (Tertius Meintjes). When the unarmed Emma accidentally witnesses the murder of a police officer in the middle of the desert, she goes on the run in a desperate attempt to survive against half a dozen armed men. In the end, she finds that her pacifism doesn’t cut it in the fight against real evil - it’s a good thing her dad taught her how to fight. Her final words in the film are: “I finally learned to shoot!” You get only one guess as to what I might find problematic with this film.

You got it: Hunting Emma is a film that intentionally defends the myth of redemptive violence, basically arguing that pacifism is utterly useless (and just plain stupid). Great stuff!

For what it is (a low-budget chase film), Hunting Emma is a well-made little film with decent acting and good production values. But it’s also a complete waste of time. Regardless of how tongue-in-cheek the story is supposed to be, it’s just plain wrong. * My mug is down.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

TV67: Game of Thrones, Season Seven




Back in July, after the first two episodes of the seventh season of Game of Thrones had been aired on HBO, I heard so many bad things about this season from friends and a few trusted critics that I almost thought I should avoid watching it. That would have been a huge mistake, because the short seventh season is among my favourites, not least because it has almost no gratuitous violence, sex and nudity (the first season that can make such a claim). I guess the producers/creators finally got the message that a TV show as well-made and compelling as Game of Thrones does not need such garbage in order to sustain viewership.

I won’t say anything about the plot, since by now you’re either a regular viewer or this isn’t your kind of show. I’ll just say that if you are a regular viewer, you won’t want to miss this season. But chances are you watched this season long before I did. I was sitting around the dinner table a few nights ago with friends from Colombia and Iraqi Kurdistan (as well as fellow Winnipeggers) and most of them were huge fans of Game of Thrones and had long finished watching season seven. It is definitely an international phenomenon. Insofar as this promotes a lively discussion among people with such diverse backgrounds, this is a good thing. But, as I have noted in previous reviews, Game of Thrones has had its dangerous moments, promoting attitudes (consciously or not) that are not healthy in the world we live in (e.g. revenge). 

Nevertheless, this seventh season highlights the positive attributes of some of my favourite characters (e.g. Tyrion and Jon Snow) in a way that does seem to want to help us all become better people, which is a very good thing indeed. Female viewers may prefer the many strong female characters in Game of Thrones, (e.g. Deanerys, Arya), who are also among the show’s more discussion-worthy characters. All of these characters go a long way toward offsetting the show’s negative qualities, which include role models I would not want to see emulated.

I almost gave up watching Games of Thrones after the fourth season and again after the fifth season. But I couldn’t stay away, and the last two seasons have made me glad I didn’t. In particular, the growth of my favourite character (Tyrion, one of my favourite characters ever) in these seasons has been a thrill to watch. My mug is back up again for one of the best and most important shows in the history of television.